Invisible Wars: The Neurodivergent Shadow & The Anti-Racist Op
Written by Hen Z.
“As you know, I’m quite concerned, not just for the safety of Asian Americans, including those that I train but other marginalized groups as well. You know how American racism…or what you people refer to as “white supremacy” works. If it’s not addressed in time, this will be weaponized against Black Americans, just like how their suffering had been weaponized to erase ours.”
“Henry. I want to thank you for bringing this up to us. I just want to know that we hear you and also inform you that this is going to take awhile”
“Yes professor. I’m fully aware that’s how bureaucracy and these systems work. That’s why I do what I do. Violent anti-Asian racism is a multi-systemic issue and I’m more than aware that there are people who aren’t going to have the privilege to wait for things to be sorted out to live.”
“Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Who is this?”
“No worries Alice, my name is Henry Zhang. We met during the Winter Roundtable a month ago. I reached out to you because you expressed some concerns about violence and your safety”
“During the day, I’m a 3rd year doctoral student in school psychology that runs his own tech business. That’s not why I’m reaching you, I’ve spent almost the last year teaching those around me to defend themselves because I still have no other way to protect them from violent racism. Like you, I watched people turn either to hatred of other marginalized groups, or let their own people burn in the name of being woke. I grew sick of it and formed my own community, a remote self-defense club. There are now over sixty of us. Today we refer to it as Dragon Combat Club. We will not only give you the means to protect yourself, but also metaphorically arm those around you including your family. Situational Awareness, De-Escalation Awareness, Fighting, Homicidal Methods. We will prepare you for the full spectrum of violence, at least what we can remotely. We’ve developed the means for you to respond to such attacks in real-time using technology. Don’t worry about the costs, my tech business takes care of that.”
“Wow that sounds amazing, thank you for what you do”
“Would you like the link?”
“I’d love it but I’m a total beginner”
“That’s what weekends are for, but if you’re one of those people where it’s like “hey it’s so violently racist out there I might die this coming weekend or before this weekend” you are technically allowed to jump straight into weekdays. In the meantime, here’s training footage of two members from when they were beginners.”
In addition to showing her the training footage of two of my trainees and schoolmates named Nina and Radwa reacting to strikes in real-time when they started. This was an easier way to convince women and non-binary individuals that our program was also appropriate for them than what I used to do when Nina and Radwa started: getting my camera shy fiancee Antonieta into the room to demonstrate certain techniques. This was a necessity since they were disproportionately targeted by anti-Asian hate crimes. I also shared our club’s collection of backstories with her so she knew where we came from.
In 2020, 45 blamed COVID-19 on Chinese-Americans by naming the virus a bunch of racial slurs, causing a spike of anti-Asian violence. Many 45 supporters, including fellow Asian Americans, excused this saying that he was only specifically referring to the Chinese government, even though the attackers did not differentiate. Others used the violence to further promote vile anti-Black racism.
Ironically, this violence was further enabled by the Asian Americans who were supposed to be our voices against racism, except threw us under the bus under the guise of supporting Black Americans and labeled any attempts to address anti-Asian violence as anti-Black. The latter who kept recreating the same cycle they claimed to fight against would later be pejoratively known as the “Boba Liberals.” Their collective incompetence enabled gruesome consequences that created a third faction of Asian Americans who refused to accept one form of racism over another that opted for direct action instead of political discourse, disconnecting themselves from the mainstream communities.
As those with power used another group’s suffering during the Summer to erase ours, we were the few with common sense that actually bothered to ask:
“We spoke up for our Black friends this summer, what are we doing for ourselves? If we don’t do shit ourselves, what right do we have to complain that others don’t?”
The most visible ones marched in the streets in response to an Asian elder being set on fire in Brooklyn, New York. Their group, led by Will Lex Ham and China Mac was named “They Can’t Burn Us All.” Many of the members took part in the Asians For Black Lives movement in the summer, but were sickened by the erasure of violent anti-Asian racism by their more “woke” counterparts. Unfortunately, “most visible” when you’re an Asian American that is not satisfying the status quo usually means invisible.
From a nearby borough, within the shadows, I was amongst the even less visible ones, preparing a group that started with only five individuals to become the violent solution whenever they encountered violent problems.
Many years ago, someone close to me and their family said I had no future being I was autistic, leading to a dark spiral. Sadly, it was common for many Asian Americans to ostracize autistic individuals, forcing me to mask for my own survival.
Thankfully, a man named Kru Brandon Levi saved my life in a dark time by giving me a place to train at Evolution Muay Thai, my home gym. This led me to acquire skills in Thai Boxing, Wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu. This became one of the first times where my condition which entailed enhanced pattern recognition and preoccupation with completing tasks concretely over need to socialize became a weapon rather than an impediment.
Back in April 2020, a fellow martial artist named Ray helped save my life by being one of the few people to accept me for being autistic. As the pandemic separated me from my gym and I became disgusted by the bloodshed and even more disgusted by peoples’ inaction, I figured it was my time to pay it forward by creating my club with Ray. The first members who joined us included some individuals from my home gym such as Joe, who learned about why I did what I did through me and was partially inspired by stories his grandparents told him about combat sports practitioners training fellow Jews to fight Nazis back when they lived in Europe. Years ago, Joe ran his own MMA club prior to training at my home gym. In addition, he had been getting a certification to train others in strength & conditioning.
Between Ray and I, Ray’s martial arts training was significantly more extensive. It was never supposed to be just me, but Ray passed away a month after I created it, and we renamed the club after his surname. I spent my entire life (particularly my professional life) as the silent individual people sent to take care of problems (that my former coworkers nicknamed “The Cleaner”) or what people who saw the real Mulan from Disney refer to as the “X-Rated Version of Mushu”, but never a leader.
I planned to keep my activities in the dark until an accident. One day in October, a schoolmate from my student support group named Radwa, who spearheaded changes for the Black Lives Matter movement in my own school discovered the second life I lived. Her horror and reminder that Asian Americans were also human made me realize that we had every right to feel the rage and sorrow that we did. This led me to reveal the existence of my initiative and the violent invisible war that required it during a speech I gave to our school. There were other Asian Americans in my graduate program, but I was the only Asian American behind the speech. One schoolmate suggested that I waited to gather the others for a collective effort. However, I refused because I believed there were too many out there who did not have the privilege to wait for the others to take action so those that were vulnerable could live to see better times. The darker, more violent future I saw was clear as day, much like Raiden’s amulet from the Mortal Kombat reboot that cracked to warn him of a darker future.
“I will continue that fight alone if I have to. While you have heard my story, I want to remind you that I am not here for myself. Because when you look at the long list of underreported hate crimes against Asian-Americans, you may notice that most of these victims are either women, elderly or physically weak. That could be my mother. That could be my grandmother. For the sake of the people wrongly blamed for this pandemic while the rest of the world is oblivious to their suffering who cannot defend themselves the way that I can, I am asking that you join me in ending this.”
A professor named Dr. Riley distributed it to thousands of people who learned about the world we lived in for the first time. While I was credited with the speech, there were many including Radwa and my best friend Lizzie (who I attended my master’s program and taught me my social skills) that helped me look over the speech. This was among the events that led to many Asian Americans disclosing how they were gaslit and felt alone fighting multiple forms of racism simultaneously. The speech and the collective reaction to our speech made those who heard it realize that we did not have to accept one injustice just to fight another. For Radwa’s actions and my own concerns about her safety since she was a Black American Muslim who lived in this place called Staten Island, we brought her in to train at DCC.
The events at the end of 2020 made me foresee a darker future where within a few years it was necessary for the people I trained to be able to train their own groups to defend themselves until that better day. This became our mission other than survival:
Normalizing modernized self-defense training methodology within marginalized groups that would not otherwise access these methods.
In one attempt, I reached out to the Center of Anti Violence Education (CAE) to provide support. Yet, we received support instead, through working with one of their teachers, Lorraine that helped us with our de escalation protocol.
“Honey, remember that time you told me back then that I’d be running DCC for the years to come?”
“What about it?”
“You were right…”
Unfortunately, I was being optimistic. During February 2021, DCC expanded to the west coast, training people from the Bay Area that Will Lex Ham referred to us as well as a team called the Oakland Brown Berets due to increase in anti-Asian violence in the Bay Area, beginning with the murder of Vicha Ratanapakdee. This required us to weaponize any willing individuals on the other side of the country. While mainstream media still remained silent and our so called advocates made excuses, Juno and Nelly (also fellow neurodivergent Asians) had me on their podcast to talk about my experiences dealing with anti-Asian hate crimes.
“How many people are going to be hurt? How many people are going to die? And all these people who are allegedly anti-racist would be complicit in that unless nobody spoke up. And that was the horrific version that I saw if I did nothing.”
The metaphorical amulet had cracked even deeper than I predicted. In desperation, I sent a plea for help to my school and a graphic description of my activities that was so graphic that a faculty who did not know me and read the email called the cops on me.
“Uhh Lizzie, they called the cops on me”
“Well on that email, there were some trigger words like lethal means, I know you told me “homicidal methods” was not a good idea to put on a professional email so I figured I wrote something different.”
“Henry! That’s not any better!”
Many people who heard my speeches in school found me to be quite professional and eloquent, although the latter was only because I had a mask on, which was tiring but necessary to not get expelled from my program. That’s why I kept the mask off when I spoke for DCC, even publically:
“Last year, during the rise of anti-Asian violence, the system that many refer to as white supremacy gave me two convenient options, to let my family burn, or to turn that anger against other marginalized groups that included my schoolmates, my training partners, coaches and other mentors. I did not have the words to convey my choice, but in retrospect, our actions told that same system to go fuck itself in the ass with a pineapple!”
Afterwards, I would check in with Antonieta, a fellow neurodivergent who was one of my main motivations to begin DCC and gave me all the wisdom she never wanted to take credit for:
“You like my speech honey?”
“Why a pineapple? We’re Asian, it should be a Durian!”
“Alright, durians it is.”
Thanks to Antonieta, this became a running joke at DCC: that we were the ones tasked with jamming that durian up white supremacy’s rectum, a job nobody else wanted to do. This became Sean’s favorite running joke.
In an ironic, yet familiar twist, many of the Asian Americans in the ivory tower were busy finding excuses to normalize it as their way of fighting anti-Black racism while fellow Black and Brown Americans activists came to help Asian Americans who were either reeling from the pain or literally fighting to survive, including students in my school who redirected mental health resources to Asian American communities. I guess that email which got the cops to come to my house did something great in the end.
“Thanks for what you’re doing Jess. Right now Asian Americans that aren’t pretending it’s not a thing are either busy grieving, dying, or in our case, literally fighting it”
“Absolutely. An attack on one marginalized group is an attack on all of us. To be honest, I’m both amazed at what you’re doing and horrified at why you have to do this at the same time. How are you holding up?”
“Heh, I’m managing…”
“Henry, I want you to remember that if you don’t take care of yourself, you might not be able to take care of others effectively, or even get others hurt.”
“Not sure if I have a choice, because if not me, then who?”
DCC took desperate measures in acquiring further training in tactics & weapons, aided by our new weapons and tactics instructor (Jon) who was an engineer during the day as well as opening our doors even wider to the community. Jon had trained martial arts for the last 15 years from various instructors around the country including Conrad Bui & Dan Inosanto (names he inscribed on his stick). He told us he was a close friend of Ray which led him to join our mission. Creating what we unofficially referred to as “next-generation Ninja” was more than necessary in a world that continued to find new ways to pretend that our war did not exist, even as our team encountered multiple incidents that would have killed us if we were unprepared. Joe was in the process of finishing his certification at the time and was looking forward to using us as his first test subjects but never got to it. During that time, I had also been undergoing a program that integrated all my previous training and more called Tiga Tactics under Conrad Bui and Patrick Vuong. They designed it using their combat sports training, weapons training and research on footage of various violent attacks. Conrad had told us the following that our club had already done regularly:
“I recommend you watch violent footage at least once or twice a week just to see how actual attacks happen so that your mind is primed for those situations. We also do that once a week just to see if our program actually prepares people for these violent encounters on the street. In the old days, a lot of martial artists assumed that attacks happened in a certain way. Since they did not have access to video like we do nowadays, they focused on defenses to these movements that are nothing like what you are going to encounter. That being said, only do it if you can handle it, and if you do it too much, that may not be good for your sanity…”
Coincidentally, I used my training to avoid my first of two encounters that same month only to break down the incident in their class. They would later promote me to become an instructor for their combatives system due to my prior training and actions the previous year. The third and last story Alice read ended the week before the Atlanta mass murders. That shooting would be the incident where the country would no longer be in denial about the prevalence of violent anti-Asian racism.
I’m just fucking with you because that totally didn’t happen. You had Trumpanzees making the same excuses about how the virus originated in China or how the scumbag had a “bad day” while the fake woke people were having debates on whether the shooting was racism or sexism, even when our team survived multiple attempts on their lives because of their race in a single month. Society’s collective incompetence and blatant lack of empathy reminded me of why some Autistic kid who was already busy with my doctoral program, running his own tech business as a freelance computer programmer and taking care of mom who was undergoing chemotherapy needed to go from being an out of shape grappler who knew how to punch to creating ninjas during his spare time. As a consolation prize, our struggle finally became a trending hashtag.
That’s why I couldn’t sleep the night after the killing even though I had to go to my neuropsych externship the next morning and that I should have been exhausted from running DCC. Somehow Radwa knew I was losing sleep over it and reached out to me while the rest of my schoolmates enjoyed their Spring Break. I was simultaneously grateful for her presence and support while also contemplating whether it was appropriate since she was dealing with her community’s own traumas, particularly the Derek Chauvin trial and the anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder. The people we trained on the ground allowed me to keep track of what was happening that was not being covered on the news, or what I may not have been privy with given all my responsibilities.
Alice joined her first training session the weekend after the shooting, along with Alicia who just survived her own encounter with a racist as well as three of our long time members, Tanner, Milda and Karoline. Tanner was one of the original members, and the only original member who was still around, but stopped coming due to other obligations. Karoline was from Ray’s home gym and joined with another member named Rich. Milda joined after the terrorist attack in Capitol Hill due to concerns about her safety. Jon usually co-taught with me, but he was attending a Stop Asian Hate rally at Columbus Park with Sean where they rocked our club apparel. Like me, Sean never liked big groups but he understood our mission. However, if we wanted to keep people alive, we definitely needed to grow.
Beginners practicing their cover system as I taught with my “Violent Problems Require Violent Solutions” rashguard.
“Good afternoon. Welcome to DCC. I know there’s a lot of rallies going on now to Stop Asian Hate. That’s cool and all but we’re going to learn how to Stop Asian Hate the old fashioned way: with our motherfucking hands. Before you teach people anything, you want to introduce the three-phase protocol.”
I explained that not all self-defense situations were the same, there are scenarios where violence could and therefore should be avoided, there were times when one needed to be violent and there were times when the most ethical decision was to kill that motherfucker. I gave them the lecture on our defensive mindset:
“Stay Alert, Stay Humble, Stay Kind”
I lectured on situational awareness, de-escalation and bystander intervention.
“Those are the behaviors you flag for. Now you may notice that quite often. What do you do with somebody who is sus? You can’t eject them from the ship like Among Us. I’m not saying you stab everyone who you only see 8 or 9 fingers, you want to maintain a reactionary gap, two arm lengths. If your attacker enters your reactionary gap before you flag them, that’s a sucker punch or knife assasination waiting to happen. This kept me alive two weeks ago, this kept me alive from some fucker trying to sneak up on me with a knife when I was coming home from externship three days ago, and it’s kept a handful of our members out of the hospital or the fucking morgue.”
I had the beginners sharpen their punches and hone their reflexes as I had Karoline virtually punch us all in the face while they responded in real time. This helped them work on their blocking which were suboptimal for smaller individuals but had a shorter learning curve. Even though I was the biggest person there, I focused on dodging those strikes with head movement that was better suited for smaller, more agile individuals since that required more refined reflexes. I figured having Karoline being the one to beat them up would be a better way to show them what they could be better than I ever could. During this time, I began to sus Alice, not because I was contemplating on ejecting her from cyberspace, but because of how quickly she picked up the movements and reflexes compared to all the beginners I have trained even though she claimed she was new. The next section was defending punch combinations into takedowns where they had to switch between defending punches and changing level to downblock to stuff a takedown.
“Do not assume that your attacker is unskilled and will throw a really obvious strike or takedown you can easily react to. If you think I’m paranoid, remember that back in January: some of those terrorists were ex-MMA fighters or ex-military. These individuals know how to set up their takedowns with punches, like we’ll be simulating soon. I don’t say this to scare you, I say this because one of the most dangerous things is a false sense of security.”
This was quite demanding on the legs. I noticed that Alice began to limp. I generally don’t tell people it’s fine if they take a break between scheduled breaks even though I was fine if they did but given how much pain she was trying to hide, I actually told her she was welcome to take a break.
Alice pushed on. She instinctively changed her stance from left lead to right lead. While I expected most people to struggle on their first day performing the techniques as instructed during static drilling, let alone in real-time, Alice managed to execute the techniques in real-time even with the sides inverted. I was equally impressed when she learned how to use her knees, elbows.
“Looks like one of you got nailed with the flying knee. If this wasn’t virtual, you’d be puking your guts out. Don’t worry about doing that fancy stuff, just make sure you don’t get nailed by it.”
We then learned how to use the blade or pen to impale our attacker for the remainder of the session. This was reserved for life or death situations where the opponent was armed, multiple opponents or when someone was attacking an elderly individual. We recommended all individuals carry a flashlight and a pen. The blade was something they carried at their own risk since certain individuals could get in trouble from what they carry for who they were rather than what they carried.
Diaphragmatic breathing for cooling down at the end of practice
“Alice, not only did you learn the techniques quickly, you found a way to adapt when your leg cramped even though to be honest, I would have been fine if you just decided to sit it out, especially on your first day. Talent is helpful, and it’s your will to find new ways to survive that makes a difference. Our original training on weekdays was mainly designed for people who already had martial arts training. We half jokingly referred to it as “Darth Brazzers Death Squad.” In case you’re wondering how that came to be, that’s a long story. Back then it was just men, not by purpose, but by circumstance. Things have changed of course… We still refer to weekdays as Death Squad training in reference to our not safe for work original name. It’s very high paced, quite demanding on both the body and reflexes. It’s technically open to anyone nowadays given how violent things are, but it’s designed for people who have some familiarity with the basics. It’s kind of rare that I clear people for it after their first day.”
I reflected back to the time I was surprised at how Nina and Radwa performed during their first classes. Unfortunately, graduate school got in the way of them coming consistently.
“Alice, welcome to Death Squad. I look forward to seeing you on weekdays”
“Wow! Thank you!”
“Just to be clear this time, I do not mean tomorrow. You’ll probably be walking funny…o god…phrasing!”
Jon was not there, but I felt his spirit facepalm and mutter: “Goddammit Hen”
“This is our club’s mantra, that I hope you live by it everyday: Survive, Help Others Survive, Protect The Weak, Empower Them, Become the Solution, That is the Way”
Whatever good vibes came from the Stop Asian Hate rally at Columbus Park, or the good work we did at DCC that weekend was undone by another hate crime against an Asian American mother who was leaving the Stop Asian Hate rally. I was angry yet numb at the same time, just another attack of many. DCC was the only thing that allowed me to be optimistic without turning away. I had to take another day off of training. Ironically, it was to make DCC’s voice heard at my school’s Asian Students Association meeting.
During their return, I had Jon take over class that night to train them for our first mass training event: where a dozen of our club members would train their mini-teams that would total up to 280 individuals at once. Just to be clear, the logistics of mini-teams wasn’t my idea, it was Antonieta’s, but she’s not the type of person to toot her own horn so I’m going to do that for her.
I was going to that school meeting with my “Violent Problems Require Violent Solutions” rashguard with my training blade. I was already considered an outcast last year (also my entire life due to my neurological condition, but at least it helped me acquire patterns better so yay?) and this slogan already got me kicked out of a team we half-jokingly call Ginyu Force a few weeks ago, so this wasn’t helping. Surprisingly, many people at the ASA meeting were fans of my rather spectacular attire. Before the host came in, I talked about what I sold and where to buy it. Last year, students asked if their pain was worthy of being heard. That was no longer the case this time. A few of my trainees were there, one even disclosed how she felt much safer after she joined DCC. This led to a conversation about their difficulties in speaking out.
“I’m not as brave as you Henry, I wish I was as strong as you.”
“Shin, I think it’s inappropriate to make that comparison. I come from a different place from you. First of all, I’m a dude. Also, when I was at my lowest point, one of my coaches gave me a place to train which saved my life. I’ve literally been trained by some of the best people the last 10 years, out of luck. I’m a Combatives Instructor: survival tactics, unarmed fighting and armed combat, if you read between the lines, you know what that makes me. I’m also autistic, which means I care more about what needs to be done, than what people are socially comfortable with. Somehow the last two function as privileges in the world we live in, and I want to use that to create a future where people like you can have their pain respected and heard. I’m sure you’ve been brave in many ways that I haven’t been brave, that have not been recognized. I’m sure you’re going to do things that I never will that you’re not going to get credit for.”
After the meeting, I checked in with a bunch of schoolmates who expressed concerns about their safety and had them join practice. I also noticed that Nina was not at the meeting:
“Nina, how are you doing? I didn’t see you at the meeting!”
“Busy with schoolwork. How’d the meeting go?”
“Funny thing is, last year I half joked about punching out racists and I was pretty much the outcast. I mean, look at me, autistic, okay you can’t see that, but also, the only dude. This year, I’m rocking this rashguard in a school meeting and I’m actually less of an outcast! They’re beginning to realize what we do is a necessity. I got Shin to join! I’m going to call this person May later to see if she wants in”
“You really went to a school meeting with that attire? O my god, I really hope they don’t call the cops on you again.”
“C’mon Nina, I’ve done worse! Remember the time from many years ago I told you about how I slipped that reference into a PowerPoint presentation under the radar?”
A few of my schoolmates joined DCC, or came back that following Saturday in the biggest class we had so far. I convinced the ones who were not certain if it was for them using the same footage of Nina & Radwa. We had various members train their own mini-teams in breakout rooms as a way to do a test run for our mass training event.
“My mom thinks getting pepper spray is going to be enough”
“Well part of why we do this is to give you the ability to educate others, telling them that force multiplier tools are an extension of one’s training instead of a replacement for it, as the saying goes: The Blade Is My Tool, I Am the Weapon.”
I was catching up with my schoolwork and all the neuropsych reports I needed to write from my externship. I’m sure people attribute it to hard work, but a lot of it was through the creative use of tech I had been selling. However, I was rather behind on some other things, namely applications for my next clinical placement. That wedding for the engagement I had in 2019? Still never got to planning it. While this was not because I was running DCC since I had some complications earlier this year that got in the way of me getting some necessary hours (although being exhausted may have had a role in me not pushing it as hard ) my classmate Sade reminded me of the toll that running DCC took on me:
“It’s not fair that it falls on you to protect your own community on top of taking care of your mom and going to school. It’s not fair that you never take a day off from training yourself and other people…”
“Never thought of it that way…”
“This setback is not representative of who you are as a clinician. It’s the burden you have to carry as an Asian American.”
“I don’t see it as a burden, because if not me, then who? Because there’s a consequence for doing nothing that I am unwilling to pay. The people in power will never even want to try to understand us. I can’t trust other Asian Americans who have platforms because all they do is find new ways to pit my community against yours, sometimes under the guise of speaking for your community. And you’ve already got your own shit to deal with…”
I had people who I used to hang out with that followed my (mis)adventures on social media message me saying they were exhausted. Some of them expressed concerns for my mental health. I told them I was confused because I’d be more concerned for my own mental health if I wasn’t doing this. Emily would also remind me how this was unfair but other people were dying so I wasn’t exactly comfortable giving a fuck about fairness. Anyways, our first mass training event was quite successful. We heard overwhelmingly positive feedback. Many people took the time to message me saying that they actually felt safer, likely because we trained actual movements instead of telling them to avoid fights, poke people in the eyes and kick people in the gonads which you don’t really need a workshop for anyways. We figured this was a great model to work off sometime in the future when we would eventually schedule the second mass training…
Nope, fuck that. Witnessing a scumbag that was well over 200 lbs repeatedly stomp a 65-year-old Filipina named Ms. Kari in the head a few days later while we were fresh off a memory of school shooting as well as our own members having to use their training to stay alive combined with the social media reaction (including Ginyu Force) of just advocating for the 5Ds of Bystander Intervention and proselytizing about white supremacy reminded me that waiting for those who proclaimed to be the voices for Asian Americans to deal with racism to do something useful was like expecting Yamcha to save the world from Majin Buu. In non anime-nerd terms: we were totally fucked. I quickly reached out to Emma to schedule the next mass training event. I figured we weren’t saving any lives by venting about how useless some people were even though that had entertainment value.
That being said, I did that too. So did brother Sean who joked about “Detonate” as one of the 10 Ds against anti-Asian racism. That’s literally how DCC was branded as violent extremists amongst many Asian Americans that I offended, with word around the street claiming that “All Hen does is teach you how to kill motherfuckers.” and us having to explain we did not seriously advocate detonating people. Apparently, I gave away vigilante vibes to people who didn’t even know that Lizzie, my schoolmate Emily and Conrad nicknamed me “Batman” for different reasons, which definitely would not have helped. The idea that we described our system as one that prioritized effectively, violence and brutality (not just the techniques we used, but what we had to defend against and were subject to in training) over maintaining traditions only made things better. I’m sure there’s someone out there who is wondering whether an autistic person making sarcastic remarks is a plot hole now. Anyways, Lizzie did warn me about this, like all those other times. When we traveled to school together, I protected her from physical threats while she protected me from something more abstract…
“What did I tell you about your slogan Henry? I don’t want to be the one who said I told you so but…”
“Can’t protect me from myself all the time huh?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t mention me in your 4th story!”
“That you told me so?”
“Like I said, I don’t want to be that kind of person! By the way, how come I only hear about you? I want to hear about the other people behind the scenes doing work. Where are their stories?”
We were branded as individuals who promoted violence and intimidation. I had no plans for DCC to become media starlets like the head of Ginyu, but being a PR nightmare was a problem because our members including Katrina and Alice were going to use their volunteer experience to apply to either dental school or their next clinical statement. Of course, such accusations were a departure from reality:
“When I joined Teachers College Winter Roundtable 1-2 months ago, I joined to listen and learn but…I was also trying to find people who we needed to prepare to survive a war. That’s how I found you, when I heard you were worried about yourself and mom”
“Yeah, at first, I was like, who are you?”
“I didn’t think I’d end up getting another person to help prepare others for that same war, or that it’d get to a point where it was necessary so soon. And now you’ll be training your own mini-team. Thankfully, you’ve progressed rather quickly Alice.”
“Are you sure I’m ready to help train these people?”
“I’m the kind of person who thinks multiple steps ahead. You won’t feel ready that day, but you will be. You’ll inspire many people who need it in ways I never will.”
Luckily, the second mass training event, my fourth story and a lesson plan which proved that we actually advocate avoiding violence first worked as damage control. Realizing that the social norms of Asian Americans were counterproductive to surviving our current day and age, I contacted Dr. Riley who spread my speech from October to brainstorm possible solutions:
“So the thing is, as you’ve read from all my previous stories , I’ve been trying to make people understand that our training is not just for people who want to compete, not just for athletic men, but for people who want to live in this violently racist world.”
“Is there a centralized source for the information for this?”
“Unfortunately, no. There’s a lot of disinformation out there, like literally anything can be taught as “self-defense” even a guy telling a woman “if you’re a woman, just pepper spray them and run” because there’s this weird myth that women can’t benefit from it and you know that’s not true, you’ve seen our training footage…”
“So there needs to be a source of information to begin with…”
“What if I were to create an infographic myself”
“That sounds like a great idea…also a lot of labor on your part. You’re already doing so much.”
“Yeah, but if not me, then who?”
“Have you ever thought of making DCC a non-profit so you can be compensated for your work?”
During the adventure of clearing my name, I met another person from Tiga Tactics that wasn’t Patrick or Conrad: Soe. Turns out he was the guy that was secretly behind the emails I was getting from Tiga Tactics. He became one of the handful of people with more experience than me (along with Sean, Austin, Rich, Jon and Joe) to join the club. He was super knowledgeable and gave me suggestions for training blades such as a trainer version of a switchblade. Soe also brought informed us about various statistics that explained the basis of our methodology, such as that the majority of knife attacks were launched within the reactionary gap, were not seen by the attacker and were set up with the non-dominant/unarmed hand. He had trained martial arts including Silat, Muay Thai and Kali for the last sixteen years. However, he will deny that and because he refuses to count the two years he trained Karate. I was pleased that he became quite fond of the program, particularly the last third of practice, where the attacker began unarmed and would pull out their blade at any second. This allowed the attacker to develop their ability to deploy their tool quickly while training the defender to realize they needed to monitor the hands for that potential lethal threat. Soe looked and moved like if you fused Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais together and put him in a MCU movie. We were more than happy to have him lead one of the mini-teams the next day.
Soe practicing at one of his may jobs during his lunch break
“Raise your hands if you’re still alive.”
Nobody raised their hands. Not even Soe. Nobody “survives” in the metaphorical Matrix, especially not during weeknights.
As we were preparing for the second mass training event, we noticed a need to schedule a third mass training event. In addition to protecting Asian elders and providing securities for protests for Black lives, the Oakland Brown Berets were dealing with a spike in attacks against their elders, particularly street vendors. Some of the Chicano elders were because they were mistaken as being Asian American and others were…to be honest, I was just disturbed this was happening, that there was no media exposure and as Soe would say, “Attacking street vendors, it takes a special type of fucking scum to do that.” I immediately scheduled my third training events with them. We agreed to a date and agreed to meet before to see how we could collaborate on the event. I told Lizzie, who had been doing a lot of work helping children who were still in cages (but in a different name, because the current administration at least tries to sound nicer or something) on her own time about my shock about this situation. Unfortunately, it was too familiar to her:
“Lizzie, why isn’t this on the news?”
“Haha…like they actually care about us.”
Our second mass training event went better than our first one. In some ways it was better since we got some new trainees from that event. Furthermore, Alice had her first opportunity training her mini-team even though she did not feel ready.
That Sunday night, the nation was rocked by another state sponsored murder on a Black American named Daunte Wright. While some may attribute someone using a firearm instead of a taser as incompetence, systemic racism meant that Black Americans were the ones who were on the receiving end of such blatant incompetence. In the world we live in, the consequences of mistakes typically go in that one direction. I reflected back to something I heard from my classmate two months ago. I had flashbacks to the Atlanta shooting and the time Radwa extended her hand as well as that time a classmate said “You know, I try to reflect back on last summer…ooo that was horrible!…but yeah….I reflected on what I needed at the time and try to give that to Asian Americans” I quickly called an emergency meeting for everyone to process, particularly those who were most affected. While Radwa made it, many of the others who were just as affected by it, were too exhausted to make it.
This was also a time to remind people that preventing the cycle I feared entailed creating a culture where we protected ourselves. In addition to Christian Hall and Angelo Quinto, being able to protect oneself against scenarios that took seconds to injure, kill and traumatize was the more logical option than relying on anyone that took minutes to arrive (even without a track record of creating other tragedies that prompted this meeting).
“Never forget what is like to be on the receiving end of racism only for others to make excuses so that you can never allow that to happen to our fellow Black Americans. Never forget that DCC is what it is today, because of Black Americans who understand racism as a grave ethical dilemma and a matter of human suffering rather than a political talking point. As Asian Americans, I want you to reflect back to the most fucked up part of this war this year and ask what you really needed then, and make sure you do that for those who are suffering while keeping yourselves alive, instead of just doing what appeals to people who are in power.”
Our next mass training event with the Oakland Brown Berets would be a fundraiser for Daunte Wright’s family.
It wasn’t going to stop the next tragedy or undo the damage but I figured it would be the least we could do. I was reminded again minutes after the meeting that we were dealing with our own form of violent racism as well.
“How are you feeling Alice?”
“Yeah I had a lot I wanted to mention but it was already a long meeting, but I also wasn’t sure if I should have mentioned the other thing. This afternoon, I almost got attacked. DCC saved my life and my best friend’s life.”
“Holy shit, I’m glad you’re okay. What happened?”
Alice shared how she was almost attacked in broad daylight by an angry person who was approaching her and her best friend from behind, only to go away after she noticed him and turned around to face him.
“I’m glad you told me, so yeah that meeting tonight wouldn’t have been the best space. That being said, when I had my first close encounter a month ago, Conrad had me share it in class so you’re welcome to do so in the next meeting if you feel comfortable.”
The morning after, one of my customers sent me this message:
“You know Hen, if it wasn’t for you sharing those posts, I wouldn’t even have known that these attacks were still happening.”
The next day, we saw the gruesome consequences of an acid attack on a South Asian student named Nafiah. This was one of too many reminders of what could happen to people I knew if I did not do my part, or what may still happen even if I did my part.
“Soe? Jon? What the fuck are our countermeasures for acid attacks other than Phase 1 stuff?”
“Dodging. It’s tricky because unlike a gun, it can go in multiple directions”
“You know violent racism is bad when you have to prepare to defend against Reptile from Mortal Kombat.”
“Goddammit Hen! I don’t know whether to laugh, be angry, or sad…but Goddammit Hen!”
I too struggled to figure out how I was supposed to feel in the face of such horrors.
“Trust me Soe, you’ll be having a lot of those Goddammit Hen moments. I’ve been dealing with that since I was born!”
That week, regular training kept us intact. Training myself, as well watching trainees improve quickly brought some purpose into a hopeless and senseless world. One of the newer members also brought many of their friends to visit the club, who required this training not just because they were Asian American, and also in addition to being Asian American.
“How many training sessions before I get comfortable confronting somebody”
I had to remind them everything was relative, and I did so while smiling and playing with the training blade I had just virtually impaled them all with.
“Are you talking about a random drunk or are you talking about someone like me or Jon?”
Everyone laughed, although in retrospect, it may have been an uncomfortable one.
“If you walk out after one session, or a few training sessions thinking you’re ready for any fight…Jon and I have fucked up at our jobs. We’re just trying to maximize your chance at staying alive.”
Jon quickly interjected:
“The point Hen and I are trying to make is that you want to avoid violence at all costs and that even after all these years of training, there’s a lot more to learn and there’s always going to be somebody who can and will put you in danger.”
“Think about the scumbag that stomped Vilma Kari where people just watched…over 200 lbs, had a knife and also a criminal record for killing his mom. I have to be honest with myself. Would I be able to kill him? Yeah that’s because I’ve trained 10 years and I got gear on me. Would there be a good chance he could kill me too? The only honest answer is also yes.”
There was no point in rationalizing what was happening, we had to become each other’s silver lining. Like sharing horror stories of bullshit self-defense lessons such as how one of us had to grab and twist a fake crotch for dear life to learn self-defense, only to later be topped with Joe’s story that he was made to do the same, except on a real person (hopefully with a cup). Or that time somebody dropped their flashlight when trying to deploy it.
“O shit Val, looks like you injured yourself with the fleshlight.”
“Goddammit Hen! For the last time, it’s a FLASHLIGHT!”
Or that running joke I always pull off on Alice every time I’m about to head to the restroom:
“Alright, I’ll step away for a moment…Alice will be running class”
“Wait WHAT?! I just started less than two months ago!”
“Have fun Alice.”
During this time, Amman and Arlene had me on IG live to talk about concrete actions we could take to simultaneously promote survival and solidarity. Looking for new ways to keep people alive, I noticed a familiar picture on the Instagram account for Asians in America that was led by Will Lex Ham. That familiar face was Winnie Cheng. Her husband Dave taught the clinch class at my home gym, Evolution Muay Thai. Originally our plan in Spring 2020 was that when COVID-19 ended a few months afterwards, Dave would teach striking and I would teach takedowns to people in NYC Chinatowns. In retrospect, that was a stupid plan based on a stupid prediction. In fact, it was so fucking stupid I had to remind myself that there are actually people who assume that racism would end when Biden got elected or will end if Derek Chauvin got convicted to make myself to feel better about myself. A year later, I ended up doing it myself with the wonders of technology, starting what became my own ninja clan while Winnie Cheng became the treasurer for Asians in America.
“Winnie, congratulations on your new promotion!”
“Yeah you know, Asians in America”
“Henry! I’m one of the people who STARTED Asians in America!”
Turns out we had more in common than I realized.
“O shit…fuck, mybad. Wait then, how come you’re not like the president?
“Why would I WANT to be the president? All this work! Let someone else do it!”
Winnie and I discussed what my team could offer as a mass training event in collaboration with Asians in America, we also caught up as I told her about some eggshells that I stepped on along the way and how there were people who did not want to associate with us.
“Aww, Henry, I’ll work with you. Just that you know, with some of these young boba liberals, you can sound really harsh!”
“For fuck’s sake Winnie, one of them is 30!”
“Still young! They are not like us older people!”
I felt so much fucking older hearing that remark. I was 30 only a few years ago but after that comment, I guess I’ll be scheduling my goddamn colonoscopy any day now.
“A lot of my trainees are younger than her! Look at this training footage, Alice will be supervising her own group soon, she doesn’t even look 18!”
“Aiya, your trainees are the smart ones! Thing is, you also have a strong personality. Even my friend who really liked your class said that about you!”
“Yeah I get it, I’m really blunt. Comes with being autistic. Not making excuses. Still figuring it out to be honest. Anyways here’s the poster I made!”
“Ummm….Henry, we’re going to have to change that. We can’t have people thinking we’re inciting violence, and also uhh the…profanity.”
“Look I know it’s annoying but we are a non-profit organization now! You know we have to make sure it does not look like we promote violence, and we have to vote on it before it gets approved! Also, I liked how your last one had pictures!”
The fundraiser for Daunte Wright with the Oakland Brown Berets was coming soon. Unfortunately, the Oakland Brown Berets were busy protecting Asian Americans, their own community, pro-Black protestors against police brutality as well as businesses in their own neighborhood from rioters at the same time. These factors precluded us from having a meeting to plan beforehand. Nevertheless, their leader Maria briefly dropped to practice the week before.
Derek Chauvin’s trial was about to reach its conclusion. Given that the country witnessed blatant state sponsored torture and murder in front of their very eyes, many people considered the trial a formality and the outcome was going to tell if the country was just super racist or really fucking racist. I had been too busy to realize they were about to reach a verdict until a professor reminded me in class. The schoolmates who were and would be most affected by the Chauvin trial were the ones who took the energy to check in how I was doing, so I reflexively reminded them I was there for them, whether I was fighting my own invisible war or not.
“Honey you think Chauvin will be guilty?”
“Very funny, is someone like you actually asking if there’s hope in the system?”
I quickly called Jon to talk about what we needed to include in DCC’s program if the country proved to be super fucking racist instead of really racist which would mean that some of our members would be naturally be exercising their first amendment rights: breakfalls, pepper spray countermeasures, certain clothing and other things. We also discussed considerations for any rioters that put human lives in danger. After all, one’s physical safety supersedes any intellectual discussion on whether the people who put us in danger represent a certain movement or not. Deep down, I was kicking myself for not having this discussion sooner.
Then the verdict came:
“Well looks like our country is just really racist instead of super fucking racist”
I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t even as affected as this as many others and I was already exhausted. During my training session that night, I acknowledged that a guilty verdict warranted both relief as well as disgust that it was allowed to happen, and realization that it would not stop a repeat of the similar tragedy. A few minutes later, I found out that a teenager named Ma’Khia Bryant was shot by the police that she called earlier prior to attempting to fight two others with a knife. I immediately tried to reach out to my schoolmates again, all while wishing it was not everyday reality that we were juggling between reeling from our own pain and reaching out to help others with theirs. When I finally reached Radwa, I noticed she did what I did last time I was in a dark place: she kept trying to center the conversation back to what I was facing instead. I realized that all this time, both of us wanted to center the conversation on the other person despite what we were facing ourselves because deep down, we knew the other person was suffering too. After the call, I hoped for whatever healing she could get in these difficult times, even if that meant that the next time something gruesome happened to Asian Americans, that she would be doing something else to take care of herself other than finding out on her own about it.
The next morning, Shin contacted me:
“Henry, it’s legal to use a knife for self-defense right? But in this country, does this mean we can still be killed for it if we’re not white?”
“Yeah Shin, that’s…why I only recommend a pen and flashlight and why I say carry a blade at your own risk. It’s not fair…”
It was only then I realized that somebody was killed by something we may have done ourselves: use of force multiplier tool when defending ourselves against multiple opponents. It was only then that I realized the possibility that my trainees could be killed for following our club’s protocol, even with my disclaimers. This became another stark reminder that for many of the people we trained that what we did was a necessary solution for violent racism but would never be the solution. The realization that the mass shooter from Atlanta was taken in alive did not make things any better. We would have more time to process and reflect on the levels of fucked up that was, and be able to better help the people who helped us become who we were today despite having their own struggles if we weren’t bombarded with reminders that we were fighting for our own lives. We were reminded of that the next day by this scumbag family who jumped this Thai American lady and then killed her cat. It was bad enough that we had to worry about our parents and elders, but now we had to worry about our pets too.
A year ago, we were fighting for media visibility. This year, we learned the hard way how fucking useless that was. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who realized that. There were many people who knew the only awareness that kept anyone was alive was situational awareness. Some of them began organizing pepper spray distributions. However, you already know our thoughts about carrying force multiplier tools without training, so that’s when I realized I had been holding off on that project Dr. Riley inspired me to do.
I dumped all my energy into that and was exhausted the next day. Not only would it create the source of information people could refer to that my professor had suggested, I memorialized Jon’s catchphrase: “Goddammit Hen!”
To accelerate the distribution, I contacted Winnie.
“I’m fucking tired. The trainees are getting good really quickly. Forcing me to work.”
“Well that’s good right?”
“Yeah absolutely. So, Winnie, we just released an infographic that introduces people to self-defense, we need you to share it ASAP especially with the pepper spray distribution that’s happening this weekend”
“Hen, we need to look over it to make sure we’re not promoting violence, and vote on it too!”
“All this bureaucracy I don’t need to deal with….makes it look like I’m running a Black Ops team or some shit”
“To the regular person, you pretty much do”
That is when I realized we could never be a non-profit organization because we lived in a world where following certain rules and social norms prevented people from saving lives as efficiently. We were efficient because in many ways, we did not exist. Perhaps somebody else would do that one day, but that wasn’t for me.
Unfortunately, the week did not even end before the next heinous anti-Asian assault. In Harlem, somebody named Yao Pan Ma that our newer member would refer to as a “recycling uncle” was collecting cans only to be blindsided and repeatedly stomped in the head. Since the attacker was a Black American, social media as usual became a cesspool again. One side was bombarded by either anti-Black rhetoric, asking “where BLM was” despite everything wrong with that statement, combined with the fact that I knew it was fucking irresponsible and unethical to demand support from a group reeling from their own pain.
The other side was pontificating about how more policing was not the solution. Just like last year, the latter had zero regard for the fact that we are not even sure if Yao Pan Ma would live as of the time I am writing this story and did not bother to propose any actual solutions. Of course, the people up there were only going to listen to those that made them feel comfortable instead of the people fighting for their humanity. They got to define Asian Americans as the model minority and could easily erase some “rogue” group figuring out how to live while doing what little they could to help other people at the same time. This would be one of the many times over the year I would rant to my club:
“This fucking bullshit right here, is why we exist!”
Just like last year, the people in power did not care, nor did they have to pretend to care anymore since Stop Asian Hate was no longer a trending hashtag. We knew the people in power weren’t coming, including the Asian Americans who found excuses to let us burn in the name of being woke for an entire year. We knew who we shouldn’t count on being around since they had their own shit to deal with. This time around, many Asian Americans grew sick of these puppets and decided to show what community and solutions looked like. One individual on Twitter posted a thread on groups that were “actually useful”, many that I looked up to.
One of those groups was quite familiar to me: Dragon Combat Club.
Shin took the time out of her already busy day to translate our infographic to Chinese.
“What does shrimping mean? Sorry, my English is not that good”
“It’s okay Shin, people that grow up speaking English that don’t practice Jiu-Jitsu don’t know what the fuck shrimping is, here’s a video.”
While I’m a trilingual speaker myself, Shin grew up in Malaysia while I grew up in the United States. If it was left to me, I wasn’t sure when I would have the energy to finally get it done and I’d probably create some unintentional comedy instead of saving lives. With Shin’s work, there would be more people that needed it that could actually read it. I also ended up getting my next clinical placement (that coincidentally served autistic individuals) that I had difficulties getting thanks to Shin’s help. IPerhaps one day, she will realize she has been doing many things that were needed to protect lives that the people she looked up to, including myself, would not have been able to do.
“Just want to make a disclaimer, we’re not expecting your grandma to be able to blast double somebody into concrete”
“Shit, we’re not?”
“Soe, I’d be happy if that happened, one could wish…”
The day before the fundraiser. Lizzie asked me to give a talk to various speech language pathologists in her school “district” about my experiences on the spectrum from hiding my condition, my friendship with Lizzie, getting engaged and my experiences with my professional life. That “district” was District 75, a cluster of schools across the city that addressed students whose needs could not be addressed within community schools. I was surprised when one of the participants had asked me this question for the first time.
“Henry, do you prefer saying you’re autistic or saying that you have autism”
“I feel no matter what I say I’ll piss someone off, I say I’m on the spectrum which some people may also not be comfortable with. My fiance does not have a preference either. That being said, I think it’s best that you ask the individual first and if not, then the family”
“Wow, I never thought of it that way”
Lizzie later explained to the participants that the reason many individuals prefer “autistic” was because “person with autism”, something we learned when we completed our Master’s program together, made it sound like an illness that was taboo instead of a condition we needed to normalize. She explained that many Autistic individuals had reasons to dislike Autism and how they preferred to replace “Light It Up Blue” with “Red Instead.” During the talk, I recalled our friendship and read an excerpt from my 3rd story where some people expressed surprise at the relationships I developed and the theory of mind that was present in the story. I told them how being on the spectrum was invaluable to helping other Asian Americans. Many of them were blown away and was looking forward to the day I wrote a book about my upbringing.
Lizzie seconded that suggestion:
“Henry, I think there’s a lot of dangerous misconceptions about Autism that such a story would shatter, like the lack of empathy, even though I think people will be shocked at the relationships that you’ve been able to form, just like ours.”
“I’ve been meaning to write a prequel after my first story thinking things would calm down but violent racism keeps escalating, so I end up writing sequels.”
I encountered many other pleasant surprises that week. I was selected as one of the three students at my program to attend a “lunch” event at school to meet with a special guest due to our work against racism. May also invited me to teach at an event for Asian American mental health event by our school that was willing to dedicate one third of the event to self-defense. That only meant 15 minutes but this was better than pretending anti-Asian racism only consisted of things that were convenient to talk about.
Despite all the good news, I had trouble getting out of bed and staying out of bed the day of the fundraiser. Not sure if it was what we kept witnessing, all the schoolwork, moving my body at unnatural speeds every day to get my workout while monitoring for mistakes in other members at the same time or combination of all but it just fucking sucked. I did nothing productive that morning or afternoon before. I told Antonieta I was not even sure if I had the energy to play Among Us afterwards. It didn’t matter no much effort I had put in, the metaphorical amulet was still cracked.
I mustered the energy to get out of bed and run our next mass training event. Even though we had eighty members in the club by then, a lot of our team leaders did not make it. Some had family obligations, Sean was in the hospital. The Brown Berets had to provide security for an event while providing tips to stay safe, and while making time to train with us. We kept going for the sake of the people that collectively donated over $500 to Daunte Wright’s family for this event.
One morning, I went grocery shopping with mom and grandma. During that time, one of our members shared a sexist meme that was in poor taste that rightfully pissed off our trainees. Luckily, Mike was there to help take care of things while I was busy making sure my grandma did not get sucker punched. Being busy with groceries did not preclude me from examining my role in it. As the individual hurt by this along with other women and non-binary individuals opened up that they did not feel as respected as the men in a group meant to empower them, I figured it was not just that one blunder. They expressed how they were frightened, frustrated and personally felt they were struggling when I initially taught them. This shocked me since these people were amongst my best trainees and I was actually impressed at their performance. It turned out that I never conveyed to them that they were exceeding my expectations and that I was just front loading more information I expected them to retain to maximize their chance of survival.
I had no plans to make my training easier, not when I underwent even more brutal training methods during my upbringing and still remained concerned if such training was sufficient, not when it created the results that it did. However, my failure to normalize these struggles led to preventable consequences: many of the members that came the one time never friends came back from that session they came to because they actually felt worse afterwards.
All this time, I used evidence of my trainees’ success to shape peoples’ perceptions of reality so that those who needed such skills could live to enjoy that better day. Yet, I never stopped to think of the ones who did not make it, or the struggles of those who did make it. These were amongst the many blunders we realized that we made as we listened. All the progress we created and any lives we saved did not change the fact that the ones who struggled with it were usually not going to be the ones who told me about it anyways. All this time fighting one invisible war did not preclude me from being oblivious of the times my trainees were dealing with another one, sometimes from my own actions. In the world we live in, the consequences of mistakes typically go in that one direction.
The newer members called a meeting to discuss their concerns and to have people voice their concerns on what they would like from the club. While I always wanted to hear what the club wanted, I was too busy to actually think of asking.
“Hen, it’s always the people with intersecting oppressions that are the most vulnerable”
“That’s part of why I always had trouble with your mantra: protect the weak, empower them. We preach to stay humble, but recycling uncles aren’t weak, women aren’t weak! You know who is weak? The people who attack them.”
Of course recycling uncles weren’t weak. Of course the women and non-binary individuals that were even more vulnerable towards anti-Asian hate crimes weren’t weak either. I reflected on what I once told a trainee who impressed me:
“Talent is helpful, and it’s your will to find new ways to survive that makes a difference.”
I realized that my club merely made the difference between whether somebody was empowered rather than whether they were weak.
All this time, despite my own intentions and our concrete results, I insinuated otherwise without realizing it. I spent the last year convincing people that they were not weak, but rather lived in a world that precluded them from finding their own strength. I reflected on what I told a friend in front of many schoolmates:
“I want to use that to create a future where people like you can have their pain respected and heard.”
Yet, this did not preclude me from being part of a world that patronized the same people I tried to empower. The newer non-binary members that joined after the mass training events told us about how our jokes including shoving durian into rectums, the savior complex of the men leading the group, our condescending tone on how certain “activists” were useless, our lack of immediately crediting people for their contributions, the rapid pace of changes that almost came exclusively from me which resulted in little space for them to communicate made them uncomfortable: things that they considered toxic masculinity and sexism. They also told us the sickening psychological impact that the random and frequent postings of the violent attack videos had on them. That was their truth.
At that moment, it did not matter our intentions, my difficulties with communication and impulsivity, the women we had empowered or the true history behind the things that upset individuals who brought up these concerns; their feelings of harm were valid, and all I could do was listen. They wanted a space that was inclusive for various identities including sex workers who could not rely on police for help and victims of various forms of trauma and marginalization to learn such skills. Those were undoubtedly necessities. They also brought up some new points that pleasantly surprised me.
“Henry, it’s not right for all of this to fall on you. You said stay kind, but where’s the empathy for yourself? It’s time to delegate some of the work to the rest of us, like an actual club was supposed to. You’ve done all this work but it was never supposed to be just you, it’s supposed to be a community. That’s what you’ve been preparing us for all along right?”
It was not until I saw glimpses of us operating more as a community afterwards that I realized the burden I had carried all this time. Not once did I stop to ask myself why I wanted to do all this. I realized that I never did, I just believed that’s what was needed to protect people starting with my fiance, mom and grandma. There may have been a time in the past when that was true. The characteristics I had successfully weaponized in my war against racism began working against me, not because I’m on the spectrum, but because I was one human being who thought he needed to do this alone. At the end of the day, it was the people I taught who helped me learn otherwise. The world we lived in became no less violently racist or dark. There was also something that felt off about waiting an entire week to the next meeting to convene to take any further actions. Yet, it was easier for me to breathe, schoolwork became easier and it was less of a struggle to take care of certain errands.
Many years ago, I was told that I had no future and would be a poor role model by an able-ist society because of my neurological condition. This triggered a spiral that led to others saving my life.
“So Jon, who would’ve thought I had this messiah or savior complex going for me all this time?”
“No fucking shit you do Hen! We both do! You’re probably still wondering what you could’ve done for Ray!”
“Can you blame me? If it wasn’t for him and Brandon, I wouldn’t be around today.”
“When I started martial arts fifteen years ago, Ray was my first instructor. I’m here because of him too.”
This led me on a journey where I acquired a particular set of skills needed to do the same for others. I weaponized what I had in an attempt to give those who were silenced the voice to express their pain and their refusal to accept one form of racism under the guise of fighting another. This led me on a journey where people gained what society thought was impossible.
“Milda, I want you to pretend you’re about to teach me how to impale somebody with a pen or knife.”
“I know that face. First time for everything.”
“Speaking of that! I had a dream last night that I stabbed someone with a pencil.”
“You’re not the only one who trains here that has these dreams from training here. There was a trainee that’s been here for some time who after training at DCC said she was able to use her training to fight back in her dreams where she was assaulted.”
“O wow, that’s cool.”
“That’s what I thought too. Then that same night we had the meeting to process Daunte Wright’s murder, that same night we found that Alice used her training to stay alive, I also found out that by assault, the friend who had that dream meant sexual assault because of what she went through in her childhood. That same night she told me that DCC gave her the means to fight back in her dreams. What we do means more than what any of us combined will ever imagine. That’s the weight we carry.”
Despite various identities of mine that would make others assume I lack empathy, it was my will to protect people like my fiancé, my mother and my grandma that helped create a spark that led to an inferno: one that will continue to burn to protect those that it can so that they can live to see a better future. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, being on the spectrum will always be a part of me, for better and for worse.
“Uhh Emily, I enraged the same people in DCC again by saying that the structural changes helped my own mental burnout. I figured I’d make it less toxic by having an environment where it was normal for a guy, like me, to express his feelings. Pissed off a few others who all started publicly calling me out because they did it as a result of the harm I perpetuated. They were already pissed when I misinterpreted something the first time so…I left.”
“Wow Henry….that’s just. I looked through that conversation too, I’m angry for you.”
“I’m still doing some reflection on all the things I’ve done. I’ve got a long history of pissing them off. The discomfort and pain I feel doesn’t stop me from seeing their point.”
“But there’s more than that, they say they understand and sympathize about neurodivergent concerns but it’s very clear they don’t. You’ve been harmed too, Henry.”
That’s when I realized the metaphorical amulet broke into pieces. What did that mean for the future? Not sure, other than the sharp pain in my head. During those times, I reflected on the times when another person I used to be close to said I had no future kept yelling at me for not understanding why she was upset despite my attempts to do so. These were the same items that Kru Brandon saved me from. I realized how many (particularly neurodivergent) members of our club, both men and women who were a part of us during the early days, felt unsafe around the same ones who wanted inclusivity due to what happened when they misunderstood social overtures or what could happen. Like me, they were the ones who did not care about social conventions as long as such actions conveyed respect and concern for others, because just like why I asked Antonieta to marry me back in the day, we understood each other.
“Juno, that podcast we did back then about the violence we have to deal with, it’s a lot more ominous listening to it now, especially after it all came true.”
“You know, I was worried you were going to sound like a radical or scare people, even though at the time, I completely believed you and couldn’t find anything wrong with what you were saying! It was tricky to edit it in a way where your messages wouldn’t be misconstrued! It’s like, it’s all truth, but…I was worried you’d become like a walking PR nightmare.”
“Well, your prediction came true, not once, not twice, but thrice. For the first time, I mean that email I sent before your podcast, guess what happened a few days later…”
Compared to the rest of our club, for reasons beyond our control, our minds were wired for direct action over concerns about the particulars of discourse. That was an asset in a world where people who looked like us were crippled, wounded or murdered for their ethnicity that was enabled by those who preferred discourse over action. To us, DCC was originally that safe Outer Haven where we could turn pain into purpose, coping with pain the way that we did, without the labor of explaining ourselves to others, that we felt was robbed from us. Others who experienced different struggles believed the same ways that kept us alive and intact, robbed them of their humanity like many things they experienced from their past. At the end of the day, it was about impact rather than intent. We were unsafe around the people who needed to be empowered more than we did, just like how they were unsafe around us.
“Henry, are you okay? I saw the groupchat…”
“I’m managing Shin… It’s just that there are some that will never connect to people like us, no matter how hard we try, even if they may share some of our struggles”
“I’m here if you need someone to talk to. I hope you will be somewhere that appreciates you and sees your strengths!”
I knew deep down that society dished out so much pain to these people that we will never collectively repair in a lifetime that I could never fault them for seeing us the way they did. I knew deep down that the ones who felt harm and reacted this way as a result had been through too much pain in their lives (sometimes from my own doing) for me to hope they will find the space to ever understand where people like me come from, or their part in what the world does to people like us. I did not want that to get in the way of them having access to doing what it took to live in this fucked up world. I did not want that to stop them from being empowered by what Ray’s memory meant.
“At one point, I was the right person for the job, but as more people need violent countermeasures against violent racism, there needs to be someone else who sits at my place while I stick with doing what I do best. Jon, that place is for you.”
“So you want me to be your puppet?”
“Absolutely not. You’ve got way more training than I do, just like Ray did. You’re also better at this whole people thing. But if you insist on me shoving my arm up your ass…”
“Goddammit Hen! This is literally why we have these problems!”
“Not if you keep me in the dark to do my own thing with a team I can work. Can’t recreate the same cycle that got us here to begin with. So Jon, what do you want to be called? The Dragon Head? Dragon King? C’mon…geek out with me again!”
“I hate you! Why do I have to do this?!”
“Because of what you’re probably thinking again. I love you too.”
“You gave so much to this… You spoke up for them when it was socially normative to make excuses to be silent! You gave them a place to train for free! All that labor you never asked them to thank you for!”
“Emily, I did it so people can fucking live, not so they can like me or so I can get some goddamn prize. At the end of the day, the right of marginalized individuals to get effective self-defense training is much bigger than any of us. I’m going back to running a small efficient team like the old days that does what people like us do best: doing what needs to be done over what feels comfortable. This way, Ray’s legacy can grow and protect those who need it while I can remain true to who I am, as well as those that believe doing what I do, the way I do it, is their calling. This will be our Outer Haven.”
“What’s the name of this team?”
“For the logo, I got some inspiration from Antonieta, and also Lizzie with the whole red instead thing. O, and I might’ve also slipped a pun or two under the radar.”
It might take one person to start a fire but it takes a village to leave a permanent mark for the better.
“Hen I’ll be honest, I need to step away from DCC for awhile”
“Me too Alice, kind of. I’m stepping down as head of DCC. We’ll miss you. Be safe, I fucking mean it…it’s getting worse out there.”
“I’m not sure if I want to come to the meeting on Friday…if my input won’t be taken. I mean there’s already structural changes happening…”
“I’ll make sure what you say gets taken either way.”
“If I send it can you credit me?”
“Of course. And….you forgot to put your name in it….I’ll take care of that though.”
Not only had Alice listed many roles and steps for a community to be involved in the greater collective that we never contemplated, I realized during this line that Alice had been looking out for me all this time too: It’s also clear that running it as one person is incredibly damaging and heavy.
05.06.21 – DCC – A.S.A.D.
“Fuck, I just caught up on everything since I recovered from my headache while pushing through some finals the last few days.”
“Yeah there’s a cinder block attack in Baltimore and a hammer attack in New York just today and a few more surprise stabbings in the Bay Area.”
“A psychologist I went to Brooklyn Tech with suggested that we figure out some metrics we can use to track these things and see if we can use it to quantify what we prioritize in training others or in our infographics.”
“Hard to watch and at the same time, at least our club prepares people for these things, we gotta find a way to at least get more people to understand situational awareness. Also wouldn’t mind exploring potential upgrades even though we already got the long guard and the takedown. Lost Boy, that early access for the blunt weapons countermeasures program from Tiga that we were talking about might come in handy anytime now!.”
“Working on it! It’s a little hard coordinating between people these days! By the way, I’m trying to figure out how to train you all to respond to multiples in real time over remote”
“Auditory cues for direction until we figure out something more advanced, that’s what we did to respond to takedowns or haymakers before we had the VR system. By the way, anyone got connections to coaches in Baltimore we can amplify? I already asked Coach Brian. Any teams patrolling down in Baltimore?!”
“Hey, I came up with community guidelines for the bigger collective! We’re going to designate these individuals as trainers. This time, Darth Brazzers will handle some of the remote training because of school, his mom and other things until he says otherwise, and maybe he can finally take a break now! What do you think?”
“Sorry Hurricane K. I’m literally in the middle of taking a piss after testing my last neuropsych patient. Haven’t read it yet.”
“Oops sorry Darth Brazzers!”
“Excellent job H.K. We should put no fucking boba liberals in the charter.”
“Or no boba liberalism instead of no boba liberals. Let’s stick with identifying problematic behaviors rather than people. Those bobas may be appropriate for mass training events or an affiliate team. Detonate, let’s give them an opportunity to learn.”
“Sure Sith Lord, but please keep them the fuck out of Black Ops.”
“Got a new list of changes from Alice we will consider in the next meeting”
“Wow, I’m digging it!”
“Speaking of boba liberals, I’m screening for people or influencers we can connect to. Too many of them have this “I’m woke and know better than you, I’m such a humanitarian” vibe. Their educational history and other information supports it.”
“MildWick, I’m glad to see Ninja Waifu isn’t the only female cyberstalker I got.”
“Hun, I told you you were running a Black Ops team! Shouldn’t you be writing your report?!”
“Hey babe, new record, I managed not to make a mess the last 3 days. Looks like the behavior plan of keeping me in the shadows is working. Now I can finally get shit done in the middle of a goddamn war where our elders are still dying that nobody fucking pays me for without having to keep my mask on all the damn time while I’m still going to school. All hail the great uniter: El Jefe.”
It’s a village that recognizes its existence came from the help of others despite their struggles and continues to welcome support from them without demanding or relying on it. It’s a village that understands the full urgency of its own troubles without downplaying others’ struggles.
“What’s your take on this whole thing, it’s not my labor to explain things that’s coming from the newer people in the main group?”
“In a just world, it shouldn’t fall on them and we must recognize that they’ve experienced pain many of us may never fully pathom. When the death cult attacked Capitol Hill, I had to explain what 6MWE meant to the rest of the crew and how fucked up that was because I didn’t want you to go through that labor.”
“Thanks man. Sucks that history repeats itself, sometimes on purpose too!”
“It sucks bro. I say all this because even when we’re marginalized in our own ways, I think it’s important to reflect on our own relationships, resources and privileges too. When we left Evolution due to COVID-19, it technically wasn’t on me to explain to you the reason I had to run DCC, or to all those people in my university.
“I had no idea all this time…Sorry.”
“And that’s why I told you. You’re not just some random dude on the internet, you’re my long time training partner and therefore connected to me beyond what words could explain, somebody who listened and did the rest of the research. I did it because there are people other than me who don’t have the fucking privilege to wait until the “privileged” figure shit out to do something. It’s simple math: by the time that shit ever happens, they either have or will fucking die while others were too busy debating what’s fair. I’ll look back and say that it wasn’t fair that it was on me to speak out about anti-Asian hate or even run DCC. But since I did, it led to many Asian Americans who were able to voice their pain, it kept many of us alive…and also, we got you as another member on the team that helped empower people against violent racism. I did the right thing, I’ll sleep easier at night, it was all worth it and that’s my truth. We don’t get to choose whether harm happens to us, but I’ll choose to be a survivor every chance I get and that’s my choice to make.”
“Point taken. Thanks for having me onboard and letting me be of service, help people fuck up racists like the old days I heard about, all under the codename Space Laser.”
“Yeah, about that….if that ever comes out of my fucking mouth in public, I’m going to have to make it clear that you gave yourself that name, so nobody shoves a durian up my ass.”
It’s a village that knows that there’s a sacrifice to make for people around them to live until a better day, that they would not have had to have made if it was a just world, and that it can happen in different ways.
“So Hen, what’s our new mantra now?”
“Survive, Help Others Survive, Protect the Vulnerable, Empower Them, Become The Solution, That is the Way.”
“Unsolicited advice Hen! You should give Antonieta a lot more credit for what she does. I mean look at how she stuck by with all the highs and lows, even when you held off that wedding planning!”
“I know Shin. In a world where too many people care about getting clout for their labor, she’s a hero you’ll never otherwise hear about.”
05.07.21 – I announced that I had stepped down as head of DCC for the collective, passing it onto Jon for it to be more inclusive. We distributed training responsibilities across individuals including Jon, I, Milda, Joe, Sean, Rich, Karoline. We also discussed the process of preparing Nina and Radwa to train others in combatives. As per Alice’s suggestions, Emily and Antonieta received various roles at DCC that were not based on combat skills, with pending roles for other volunteers including Lizzie who still has not trained yet. Due to my previous connections and the fact that I was the only original remaining member of the five member squad that became DCC, I remained the point person for Oakland Brown Berets and Asians in America while someone took care of other people.
It’s a village that understands that it takes an entire community, rather than any single one person, to make violent racists afraid again.
Thanks to Alice’s blueprints, DCC would enter its 5th iteration. With multiple instructors would focus on their own specializations within our core system. Rich, who would teach in Columbus Park the same time we ran our fundraiser, taught close quarter striking. Jon would handle weapons. Joe, who got his certification as a strength & conditioning coach, would handle mobility, conditioning and ranged striking. I took care of striking into both takedowns and weapon deployment. Soe got some crazy shit lined up. This would allow everyone, including myself, to revisit similar techniques from different perspectives.
It’s a village that knows how and when to take care of others’ troubles without having to erase their own.
“I’m glad you came last night Radwa. You were there when I publicly announced DCC’s existence at our school, when you gave voice to the people who refused one form of racism over another even though those that were supposed to speak up for us used your suffering to erase mine. You helped turn Ray’s memory into a symbol of hope and power through solidarity. That’s why I wanted you to be there when I stepped back into the shadows.”
“Thanks, I wish I could be there for you more Henry.”
“You’ve been there for me, and my community, more than I could ever ask for. What you’ve done is why we exist, and I don’t want anyone to ever forget that.”
It’s a village that contemplates whether the voices one listens to are the ones that appease the privileged or the ones who are fighting to live.
“What the fuck is happening in Jerusalem?”
“Umm I have no idea, haven’t done on any reading, I’m busy with finals”
“Long story short Hen, it’s the far-right of Israel enforcing brutally racist and authoritarian shit.”
“Jesus fucking christ, I just did some Googling about the shit they did. And those folks have a far right? Weren’t the ones in America just chanting 6WME? I mean you literally chose your nickname to mock one of those dumb antisemitic fucks!”
“This is too familiar: a divisive media that will weaponize suffering of one innocent group of people to erase the murder of innocent individuals in another group. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from last summer, we cannot pretend there are two sides to oppression, nor can we erase the struggles of innocent people caught in the crossfire because they are less marginalized, or because our system dehumanizes them. No human being should be endangered because of the sins of those in power who claim to represent them. That means whenever there is violent Islamophobia or violent Anti-Semitism in front of our eyes, it’s time to stop that shit with our motherfucking hands.”
“Seek the truth, and speak all of it”
“Serve the people, not the system. This is where we come from. That being said, I’ll check on Radwa.”
During the end of one Integrated Perspectives of Trauma class, our professor told us to write something on an actual paper about what we wanted to let go of. In my usual sloppy handwriting that required me to rely on technology to get any writing done to begin with, I wrote:
“The belief: if not me, then who? That it falls on me.”
We collectively ripped our papers so that each of us, including Emily and I, could hear the sounds of each other ripping the paper into shreds. As the paper shredded, I felt the tears roll down my own eyes for the first time since the week of the Atlanta shooting. I envisioned the pieces of the metaphorical amulet come back together.
“Antonieta, if we’re finally going on vacation this summer, it should be somewhere colder…”
“I don’t know, Canada? I miss that giant lobster tower we had. How’s the rate there?”
“You talking about COVID-19 or violent racism? Either way, it’s bad!”
Hmmm…apparently, we have to check for these things now too. Fuck.
“Right…I forgot, that’s where King of AWA Toronto is from. He’s joining us soon. I’m amazed that we’re going international, and also quite horrified that we have to.”
“We could always fly to different places to train the people there right?”
“If that’s the case, I’m sure there’s also plenty of people in the Bay Area I’d love to work with that will greet us with open arms, even though they already have people like Conrad and Soe. That being said, I’m talking about an actual vacation this time.”
I wouldn’t be this surprised if the last time she was this shocked was when I asked her to marry me back in the day.
“They will manage. I’m sure we’ll have prepared them well enough by then. If not, we fucked up at our jobs.”
This time, I’ve told my story of the small part I had in this war to paint the friendships and struggles that American racism will continue attempting to erase for the last time. I know too well the dark direction we are still headed. Yet, should I ever use my voice in this capacity again, it will be reflecting back to a past when I fought another invisible war that prepared me for this current one. I will continue to arm those in need for the years to come, not with the help of others, but with others and in service of others.
No matter what happens next, it’s time for other people to tell their stories of this war moving forward. After all, that’s a small part of the world we’ve really been fighting for to begin with.
Many AAPI community based groups (e.g., Asians Are Strong, Asians in America, Soar Over Hate) now provide self-defense initiatives that employ a combination of survival tactics, combat training by long-time practitioners (and sometimes coaches) of Thai Boxing and/or MMA ( disciplines previously associated with “sport” by non-martial arts practitioners rather than self-defense) as well as either training and/or distribution of force multiplier tools.
Hen has redirected all proceeds he earned from teaching employees from various corporations basic self-defense to donate hundreds of personal safety alarms to the elderly in addition to using Dragon Combat Club’s mass training event in collaboration with Asians in America to fundraise for even more personal safety alarms. Today, he is just one of the many combat instructors at DCC (specializing in takedowns and deployment of force multiplier tools), allowing him to reallocate more time and energy to his clinical training which now focuses on autistic individuals, his tech business, and finally planning his wedding. Hen continues to run ASAD, a team of mostly neurodivergent martial artists that use their skills to monitor and analyze violent hate crimes to determine how to further optimize combatives training within the community.